The Prodigal Sun — Philip E. High (1964)


Publisher: Ace Books

First Ace Edition, 1964

Cover Art: Uncredited (please leave a comment if you know)

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Captain Scott and Lieutenant Slim had just bombed the shit out of their target city, throwing so much toxic crap into the atmosphere that the sunset colored the sky like Tang. “It’s a great thing that we’ve done today, Captain,” said Lieutenant Slim, with pride in his voice, “A real feather in our caps. We’ll be given commendations for this, maybe even promotions!” The grizzled Captain Scott looked at his second-in-command, a frown creasing his face. “Do you really believe that, Slim? Do you think that we’ll be hailed as heroes, when we’ve failed in our mission so miserably as to warrant our executions as the worst kinds of traitors?” Lieutenant Slim, aghast, looked out from the cockpit. “Captain, sir, look outside! The place is a wasteland!” The captain shook his head. “Look below us, Lieutenant. Do you see that mighty bush down there, green and vibrant, growing strong and true?” Slim did, indeed, see the bush. To his eyes, it was clinging desperately to life. “Sir,” Slim said, “it’s only a bush, and a pretty sorry-looking one. What’s one bush alive against an entire city in ashes?” Captain Scott shook his head and replied, “Slim, you don’t understand a damned thing. That bush, growing free and defiant in the wake of our campaign, is a living symbol of opposition to our cause. Don’t doubt for a minute that pictures of that bush are going to decorate billboards and television screens in all of the border colonies. It’ll be a rallying call, a sign that, even when the crushing might of the military is brought to bear, the spirit of resistance will live on. No, it would have been better if we had never come here. One bush among many is nothing—a single bush spells our defeat, in philosophy and spirit.” The logic of the captain’s reasoning hit Lieutenant Slim hard. “You’re right, Sir,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. But what can be done? We’re out of usable ordinance. All we have is some light explosive, but no delivery system.” The captain put his hand on Slim’s shoulder. “Son, you know what must be done. This is more important than you or I, more important than a single life. The destruction of that bush will, on this day and for each one hereafter, herald hope for our progeny. You, Lieutenant, have the honor of being the spearhead that pierces the heart of the beast, and glories will be heaped upon you for as long as our venerable people draw breath!” Tears in his eyes, the lieutenant nodded his head. He filled his pockets with the explosives, and gave his captain a salute. “Go with grace, my boy!” the captain shouted, and, activating the bomb bay doors, dropped Lieutenant Slim on the bush, which presently erupted in flame. The captain then reached over to the copilot seat, and into Lieutenant Slim’s discarded satchel. With a chuckle, he tore up the sizable IOU from the previous evening’s poker game, and set a course for home.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Man, did I have zero confidence in this book. I don’t know what kind of acid the editing staff at Ace were into back then, but it clearly kept them out of the office (or terrified of typewriters) for at least some portion of 1964. The punctuation in this novel is insanity. Commas where periods should be. Periods where question marks should be. More commas where nothing at all should be. I hope later versions of this novel display some effort to correct the issue, because it was a pretty fun read. Certainly preachy at times, but it’s got a Space Jesus, a totalitarian military thought-police, and some pretty transparent Cold War allegory. It was also written, I assume, in the back of a VW van, through a haze of pot smoke and patchouli stench, on the back of a mimeographed copy of “Worker’s Weekly,” with a piece of charcoal borrowed from the art supplies of a girl called Willow. I mean, I can dig it, and I think you should, too. As long as you aren’t constrained by THE MAN’S insistence on conventional punctuation rules, which are really just another construct of the oppressive consumer state. OPEN YOUR EYES, MAN!

Rating: 8.8 Cops At The Door

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Was he there to teach Earth, to rule it, or to impact it at great velocity?
  • What year in the future does Speed Stick get into the flying car industry?
  • If it were possible to survive a fall from that height, are we also to believe it’s possible to survive being cooked alive by the fire-belching rocket engines not a meter from one’s face?

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2 thoughts on “The Prodigal Sun — Philip E. High (1964)

  1. My OH used to be a huge fan of High (appropriate name there) and he (OH, that is) is a punctuation pedant, so I guess later editions were corrected….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank Christ for that. It looks as though someone had switched the dude’s keyboard keys, and he was like, “Fuck it, rules are for fools.” This is why it’s important to stay in school, kids.

      Liked by 1 person

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